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Wrongful Death by Police

Police officers are sworn to protect and serve the communities in which they patrol. But police work can get chaotic in the heat of the moment. Sometimes officers violate the rights of civilians or act negligently. These negligent acts can lead to unjustified injuries and deaths. A law enforcement officer whose actions lead to the death of another person may be charged in criminal court with homicide in certain situations.

Those who have suffered the loss of a loved one and are able to prove it was due to an officer's negligence or willful disregard for the law may also be able to file a civil lawsuit for wrongful death, lost companionship, pain and suffering, and other damages.

Since officers are routinely placed in dangerous situations and often must make split-second decisions about whether to use deadly force, risking their own lives in the process, courts have a difficult task in determining liability when things go wrong.

The following information provides an overview of wrongful death by police claims.

Wrongful Death by Police: Introduction

When someone dies because of the negligence or intentional act of another, surviving family members may claim monetary compensation for their loss in a wrongful death lawsuit. While claims against other private citizens or non-governmental entities are typically filed in state court, claims of wrongful death by police or other peace officers (including prison guards) may be filed in federal court if there were constitutional violations.

Some cities, on behalf of their respective police departments, zealously defend such claims of wrongful death. Others are quick to settle in the interest of minimizing bad publicity. Plaintiff attorneys generally prefer to have these wrongful death cases tried in federal courts since they are considered less partial.

These suits are typically filed against the city or jurisdiction of the police department involved in the claim, as some jurisdictions extend what is called "qualified immunity" to individual public employees in certain situations.

The limits of New York's qualified immunity statute were staked out in a federal appeals case decided in 2008. Basically, this decision grants qualified immunity to public employees (such as police officers) in injury claims only if there was no willful violation of established law. In this example, the officer used appropriate techniques in carrying out his duties as an officer. If a suspect is killed after an officer properly uses techniques approved by the department, he may be personally immune to a wrongful death lawsuit.

Damages and Settlement Amounts

Damages and settlement amounts vary quite a bit from one jurisdiction to the next. A year-long investigation of fatal police shootings in 2015 by The Washington Post found that settlements ranged from $7,500 to $8.5 million, with a median settlement amount of $1.2 million. The investigation also concluded that families collected substantially more money by settling before trial; that families settling after a criminal trial received $500,000 on average; and that suits against individual officers were exceedingly rare.

Jurisdictions vary in who can bring a wrongful death lawsuit and what damages that person may be able to claim. If a wrongful death is found by the jury verdict, the victims' family can recover losses for pain, suffering, and “loss of consortium." They may also be able to recover damages for medical expenses, lost financial support, and funeral/burial expenses.

Most jurisdictions also offer an option to recover punitive damages in a wrongful death case. Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant.

Jurisdiction: State or Federal?

Plaintiffs may seek either a state claim that the officer acted negligently or with malicious intent; a federal claim that the officer violated the plaintiff's civil rights; or both. For instance, a state negligence claim may allege that an officer drove recklessly through a busy intersection in pursuit of a suspect. They accidentally strike and kill a pedestrian in the crosswalk.

A federal claim might allege that an officer used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. This lead to the victim's death (use of force is considered a "seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment).

If federal courts have original jurisdiction over such a case, they also may have supplemental jurisdiction over state claims. Therefore, plaintiffs may file a federal claim that also cites state law, as long as the state-related claims are directly related to the federal claims.

If the federal court decides there are no valid constitutional claims in the complaint, it may get kicked down to the state court. This is assuming either negligence or intentional tort claims, citing state law, are valid.

Wrongful Death Claims Against Police: Federal Court

Federal law (42 U.S.C. § 1983) states that peace officers who subject any U.S. resident to "the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" may be held liable for those injuries. For example, a federal wrongful death complaint filed in 2016 by a plaintiff after her husband was shot in the back and killed by a San Jose police officer cited several constitutional violations, including the following:

  • Fourth Amendment - Excessive Force: Plaintiff claims the shooting was "excessive and unreasonable, especially because the decedent posed no immediate threat or death or serious bodily injury" at the time.
  • Fourth Amendment - Denial of Medical Care: Plaintiff claims the officers "knew that failure to provide timely medical treatment to decedent could result in further significant injury... but disregarded that serious medical need, causing decedent great bodily harm and death."
  • Municipal Liability - Inadequate Training: Plaintiff claims the "training policies of defendant city [San Jose] were not adequate to train its officers to handle the usual and recurring situations with which they must deal."

Since peace officers may use force in proportion to what is needed in the course of their job, whether it's to arrest a suspect or defend themselves, it's not always clear whether an officer used excessive force or was responding to a perceived threat. When a police officer uses excessive force and that force is unreasonable, this is police brutality.

For instance, a child with a realistic-looking toy gun doesn't actually present an imminent threat to others. But, if an officer doesn't know it's a toy and it's pointed at her head, her decision to shoot the child may be justified as an act of self-defense. If she did know that the gun was a toy, her response would be unreasonable and would be considered police brutality. The child's family may have a wrongful death case and should speak to a wrongful death attorney.

The bottom line is that these decisions rest on the available facts and evidence, as reviewed by the jury. While most states require a "preponderance of the evidence" when determining liability in civil cases, federal law requires a slightly higher burden of proof -- "clear and convincing evidence" -- for claims of civil rights violations. Courts often use the standard of whether certain actions are so egregiously in violation of one's civil rights that they "shock the conscience." This was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1952 decision (Rochin v. California).

Wrongful Death Claims in State Court

If the plaintiff is not claiming any constitutional violations, then there are no grounds for a federal lawsuit. The claim must be filed in state court. Wrongful death by police claims in state court rest on claims of either negligence or the intentional infliction of harm (although the latter usually indicates a civil rights violation) leading up to the individual's death. Here, it's not so much a question of whether the officer's actions "shock the conscience" -- since that would indicate a civil rights violation -- but rather that the officer acted negligently.

Questions would include the following: Was the officer justified in fearing for their life? Were their actions consistent with their training? Did they use excessive force, beyond the amount of force necessary by a reasonable officer in a similar situation?

State claims for wrongful death by police are uncommon. Most such claims are heard in federal court. But, state claims may include false imprisonment, battery, negligence, or any other codes or case law in support of the claim.

Have Specific Questions About a Wrongful Death Claim Against a Police Officer? Ask a Lawyer

While no amount of money can bring back a loved one, the family members of those who were negligently or maliciously killed by police officers may be entitled to compensation through a wrongful death lawsuit. These suits are very complex and may involve more than one jurisdiction.

If you believe you may have a wrongful death case, you should consider speaking with a local personal injury attorney today. They will help provide legal advice and guidance for navigating a wrongful death lawsuit.

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